The Coming “Tsunami”: Sexual Harassment Litigation

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

The harassment (both sexual and non-sexual), bullying, and rape of firefighters, predominantly 20160514_Gender Roleswomen firefighters, in both career and volunteer fire departments should have “gone the way of the Dodo bird” long ago. But they have not. And now we have cyber-bullying added to the mix of unethical and immoral behaviors that fire service leaders must seek out and eradicate from their organizations.

The question on everyone’s mind should be, “Why not?” In the words of my fire service and LinkedIn colleague, retired chief Curt Verone, “…we continue to apply technical solutions to an adaptive challenge and lament why it doesn’t work.”

See Related: Gender Disparity in the Fire Service: We’re Better Than This!

The tactical solutions Chief Verone makes reference to are the training, education, and policies that have been developed and implemented in fire departments large and small. And then there’s the ultimate tactical solution: litigation.

Tactical solutions have not been enough. One of the adaptive challenges that Chief Verone alludes to has been the entry of women into the fire service, particularly the career fire service. In the USA, women currently account for less than 4 percent of the total career firefighters on the job. That development, beginning in the early 1970’s, has brought to light some of the “darker sides” of human nature: misogyny, bigotry, and the need for the powerful to exert dominance over the less powerful.

The Suicide of a Firefighter

The recent suicide of Firefighter/Paramedic Nicole Mittendorff has given a name and a face to this “blight” on the fire service. Like Amber Alerts (Child abductions), Megan’s Law, and Ryan White (AIDS awareness), I believe that FF/P Mittendorff’s death—caused in no small measure by cyber-bullying from her peers—will come to be known as the “tipping point” in our fight to eradicate harassment and violence against women in the fire service.

That Eradication will come from…

20160514_gender-symbolsEEO complaints and lawsuits from victims who now see hope and the opportunity to get justice because of the national attention focused on their plight (I’m writing this and you’re reading it. Enough said?).

Career and volunteer fire departments across North America (I hear from women firefighters in Canada as well on this topic) would be smart to get ahead of the coming “tsunami.” Before reputations are destroyed, jobs are lost, and tax dollars are spent in reaction to abhorrent behavior on the part of its members.

Don’t think so?

In just the past few days another woman firefighter filed a lawsuit against the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department claiming not only that was she sexually harassed and stalked by her captain, but she was retaliated against when she reported his behavior. That’s right, the same department that Nicole Mittendorff worked for before she took her own life.

I think it will not likely be the last such lawsuit filed against that department—or others across the fire service—because there are “skeletons in the closet” that are going to continue to be exposed to the light of day.

What to do?

Be proactive, not reactive. If I were a fire chief, I’d meet with my bosses and our legal staff (city or county attorney) to develop a plan to assess our potential liability. I believe that a key component of that plan would be for the legal staff to conduct independent and confidential interviews with every woman firefighter and officer in the department. The purpose would be to ask them if they’d ever been the target of harassment (sexual or non-sexual), bullying, cyber-bullying, or rape from a male colleague or supervisor, on or off the job.

Any information obtained during these interviews that even hints at such activities should be 20160514_Stop Workplace Harassmentthoroughly investigated by local or state law enforcement, without prejudice.

Expensive and time-consuming you say? Terrible for morale in the ranks?

How much time and money do you think is going to be spent by Fairfax County and its Fire and Rescue Department in the aftermath of FF/P Mittendorff’s suicide and the recently filed lawsuit? What do you think the morale in the ranks is at this time and going forward?

In the words of that firefighter of old, Ben Franklin (writing as Poor Richard), “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” And these days, the cost of the cure is much more expensive than in old Ben’s days.


About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].